Power and Paranoia: ‘His Master’s Voice’ by Stanisław Lem


One of the things I love about great science fiction is the way its never actually about the future, or the machines or the other worlds it depicts so much as it is about the precise historical moment of its writing.  I was looking out for this more that ever with my first Lem read, chosen as it was to fit in with the 1968 book club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

Lem is best known for his Sci Fi classic ‘Solaris’ (still on my wish list, but not, alas, published in 1968).  If ‘His Master’s Voice’ is anything to go by, ‘Solaris’ is philosophical, ambitious and a telling commentary on the Cold War.  These things are certainly true of this lesser known work, in which the science fiction premise is an excuse for an intense and intelligent exploration of human morality.  ‘His Master’s Voice’ is a first contact story, narrated by a world famous mathematician. It begins with a deadpan ‘Editor’s Note’ in which we’re told ‘the manuscript was found among the papers of the late Professor Peter E. Hogarth. That great mind, alas was unable to put it into final form, though he had labored long over it.’ Next comes a preface in which Hogarth introduces us to to his failings and his personal philosophy.  It’s pretty dense and complex, but fascinating scene setting, ending as it does with the ominous promise:

The adventure I am to relate boils down to this: humanity came upon a thing that beings belonging to another race had sent out into the darkness of the stars.  A situation, the first of its kind in history, important enough, one would think, to merit the divulging, in greater detail than convention allows, of who it was, exactly, who represented our side in that encounter.  All the more since neither my genius nor my mathematics alone sufficed to prevent it from bearing poisonous fruit.’

The book that follows is in fact all about taking ‘sides’ in the encounter.  First there is the litigious start to the project, the discovery of the ‘thing’ sent to earth and the absorption of the resulting scientific research into the US military.  In a bugged and isolated repurposed nuclear research facility, an army of men (it’s the scientific future as imagined in 1968 and I’m not clear from the book if women still exist) fight against time to understand what the communication means.  Their competitors in this endeavour include:

  1. possibly, the alien life force who may be, at this moment, planning their attack on earth.
  2. probably, the Soviet scientists who are trying to get ahead in the race for knowledge.
  3. probably, the Soviet military who are researching how to use this knowledge to develop a super-weapon with which to win the Cold War.
  4. possibly, an alternative facility set up by the US military who don’t trust their hand-picked set of experts, especially as these civilians might not understand the importance of point 3 above and so will not look explicitly for the military potential in their findings.

You’ll have to read the book yourself to see how many of these fears are realised, as the novel continues we certainly learn which of them Hogarth was personally most frightened by.  My final comment is that, although very much of its time, the book is not limited by this.  Its conclusions about fear, paranoia, good and evil are equally relevant nearly fifty years later and I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intelligent and thought provoking first contact story.

Note: I read the 1983 English edition of the novel, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel.

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2 Responses to Power and Paranoia: ‘His Master’s Voice’ by Stanisław Lem

  1. So glad you could join in with 1968! This is one I really wanted to get to, but didn’t. I’ve loved every Lem I’ve read and I imagine this would be no different.

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